Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Halloween

It was a windy day, and the witches were clutching their hats. That was the scene this afternoon at the Halloween parade at my son’s school. Were these real witches? That depends on how you look at it. Halloween is all about taking the role of something you are not. Confront your fears by becoming them, was the old idea. Today, Halloween is good shivery fun. So here is a set of good shivery songs.

Sade: Haunt Me


When you have a voice like Sade’s, you can make a song work with minimal accompaniment. Haunt Me is mostly voice, acoustic guitar, and piano. Strings are used with the lightest possible touch, and a saxophone joins in towards the end. And that’s all Sade needs. Love can be haunting, especially in dreams, and Haunt Me states that perfectly.

Lydia Lunch: Spooky


This version of Spooky comes from Lydia Lunch’s album Queen of Siam. Many of the songs use noise and dissonance to create an edgy feel. There is also an off-kilter jazz vibe on several songs. So even though Lunch plays it fairly straight here, there is the expectation that the song may fall apart at any moment. This gives Lunch’s version of Spooky an extra edge that the original lacks.

The Incredible String Band: Witch‘s Hat


Robin Williamson and Mike Herron led The Incredible String Band. The group combined a deep interest in traditional songs and lore of Scotland with the psychedelic music movement of the 60s. Witch’s Hat is a Williamson song which he also recorded in his solo career. Williamson fancies himself as a modern-day bard, working magic with his musical performances. Indeed, Witch’s Hat works like a meditation that transports the listener into another state of being. I know that sounds pretentious, but close your eyes as you listen to this one, and see where it takes you.

Loreena McKennitt: All Soul‘s Night


On All Soul’s Night, Loreena McKennitt reminds us of the Pagan origins of the holiday. The musical setting combines Celtic and Middle Eastern influences to powerful affect. Over all, the song emphasizes the mysterious quality of this time of year.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

S J Tucker: Neptune


S J Tucker is something of a musical trickster. I was originally going to post a different song of hers called Salad of Doom. That song is a hilarious send up of B horror movie themes. The problem was, the song gives the impression that S J Tucker is all about novelty songs, and there is far more to her work than that. Neptune is a fairy tale in the best sense, with all of the emotional depths that the form can imply. It is a tale of magic, but it also resonates beautifully as a love song. The mood is achieved with just acoustic guitar, cello, and percussion, plus Tucker’s voice. It’s a powerful voice, but Tucker knows that holding back can often express emotions better. Tucker’s songs, then, are a wonderful combination of power and subtlety.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

For a Song: Alabama Getaway

Vassar Clements: Alabama Getaway


First of all, my apologies to anyone who came here looking for my review of the new Mavis Staples album. Even though it was sent to me in good faith from her label, the post became a takedown.

Meanwhile, I sat down to do this week’s For a Song post, and all I knew was that I was in the mood for a Grateful Dead cover. Alabama Getaway wasn’t even a song that came to mind. But I went shopping in Amazon’s download store, and this is what I found. Vassar Clements is not a bad choice to cover the Grateful Dead, given that Clements was once in a bluegrass band with Jerry Garcia called Old and in the Way. But that doesn’t fully explain what happens here. Alabama Getaway comes from late in the Dead’s career, when they had strayed far from their classic sound. The song was originally a straight ahead rocker, and a fine one. But it lacks some of the nuances that make earlier Grateful Dead songs so instantly recognizable. Vassar Clements fixes that, by turning the song into a rollicking western swing number. I can’t imagine Garcia and company ever doing it that way themselves, but I think Jerry would approve. The singer here is Gwen Vaughn, and she does a fine job as well.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Spotlight on: Lara Michell

I’ve never done a post like this before, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to again. You see, Lara Michell is the only artist I’ve ever covered who not only recorded with five different groups or configurations, but also made all of that music available to me. So no favoritism is intended, but Michell has made some wonderful music in each configuration, and I would be happy to consider doing something like this with other artists if the situation were to arise.

I first heard Lara Michell singing with The Stolen Sweets when I reviewed them here. I soon found out that she also had a solo album coming out, and I reviewed that as well. That was when I learned about the other music she had made over the years. Here’s how it went:

Carmina Piranha: Rosemary


Michell made her recording debut with her album Tide Pool in 1997. The album presents a promising singer and songwriter. Michell plays most of the instruments herself, with occasional assistance from Rob Scrivner. Erin Sutherland, a name you will hear again later, provides some background vocals. But Tide Pool feels like a demo for what would come later. Partly, that reflects advances in technology relating to home recording in the years since. But it also reflects the fact that Michell was a new artist at the time.

The following year, Lara Michell was in a group, Carmina Piranha. Their first album, Revenge Poems, was a score for a ballet production. Here, Michell wrote music to accompany Lisa Stringfield’s words and lead vocals. The sound is fuller, and the arrangements are inspired. There would only be one other release from Carmina Piranha, an EP in 2001 called Lucid. I begin my survey here, rather than with Revenge Poems, because the earlier album is intended to be heard as one continuous work. By 2001, Carmina Piranha had had a lineup change, with the addition of bass player and back-up singer Nancy Hess. Hess also produced Lucid.

Lara Michell: Into the Dream


Nancy Hess also coproduced Lara Michell’s next solo album, Somniloquy, with Michell. The sound here is fuller than on Michell’s debut. There are more musicians helping out, but even the overdubs where Michell accompanies herself on multiple instruments have more of a band feel. In addition to Hess, Kirsten Swanson shows up on two songs, and Jason Roark on one. More on them in a moment. Nancy Hess would relocate to New York City the year after this came out, and that would be it for Carmina Piranha. A modified version, Carmina Luna, still performs occasionally in the Portland area, but they have not recorded anything.

Dirty Martini: Low


Michell’s next album came out in 2004, the year she also joined Dirty Martini. The solo album, Ruby Red, was again produced by Nancy Hess, and there are also two songs co written with Jason Roark. Lisa Stringfield sings on a song she helped write, and Skip vonKuske, who we will hear of again, plays on one song.

Dirty Martini came out of a songwriters in the round performance, featuring Lara Michell, McKinley, Lea Krueger, and Stephanie Schneiderman, (don’t worry, they were all new names to me too). At the end of the evening, they decided to do more together. Each of them brought to the group songs that they had previously recorded. Krueger and McKinley’s sound had been aimed toward pop audiences, while Schneiderman had been doing a kind of pop-folk with lush arrangements. To my ear, Dirty Martini’s arrangements show mostly Michell’s and Schneiderman’s influence, and Krueger and McKinley’s songs benefit greatly. However, Michell’s songs gain some bite from the fuller arrangements. Dirty Martini’s second album, Tea and Revenge, came out in 2006. By this time, Krueger had left the group, and the others had developed more of a group chemistry. Low comes originally from Michell’s album Somniloquy, but really comes across beautifully here.

MdKinley is based in Los Angeles these days, and there have been no further albums from Dirty Martini. But the band officially still exists, and performs occasionally.

The Stolen Sweets: Charlie Two-Step


The Stolen Sweets were my entry point for this journey, and this is ironically the most radical departure from most of what Lara Michell does. The music is jazz, and it takes Michell to places she hasn’t gone before. But she, and everyone else, sound like they are having a blast, and that is the key to making this music work. But the band does find her harmonizing with two other female singers, a hallmark of her sound. Even on her solo albums, Michell multitracks her vocals and harmonizes with herself. Here, the other singers are Erin Sutherland, who I mentioned earlier, and Jen Bernard. Pete Krebs also sings lead on some songs, with the women serving as a sort of greek chorus. Krebs is the leader of this group, and does some songwriting on their latest album. But, on this debut, the songs are all covers. The Stolen Sweets are the only project Lara Michell has done where she does not do any of the writing.

This song comes from 2006, and Skip vanKuske, who I mentioned earlier, is in the band and contributes string arrangements. The Stolen Sweets are very much an active band, and I look forward to hearing more from them in the future.

A Simple Colony: Lock in Key


Finally, we arrive in the present, and Michell’s latest project. A Simple Colony is the duo of Lara Michell and Michael Dodson, with Skip vonKuske, (again), and Todd Bayles helping on one song each. The instrumental arrangements are stripped down to just Michell on guitar or piano on most tracks. The vocal arrangements are another matter. Dodson wrote the words and created the vocal arrangements on top of Michell’s music. This harkens back to the Michell/ Stringfield partnership in Carmina Piranha. The instrumentation is even sparer than on Michell’s debut album. But the affect is completely different. First of all, Dodson’s vocal arrangements are amazing. His tenor and Michell’s alto are close enough to blend seamlessly, forming one living, breathing, voice. Multitracking is used on the vocals only, to form a rich chorus. And Michell’s composing and playing are far more assured than they were at the beginning. All of these years of interacting with other musicians has given her a great idea of how to be a band by herself The combination really works.


So, for now, that is who Lara Michell is. I wouldn’t care to guess what she will do next, but I will probably enjoy finding out. There is a good chance that some of her old and new friends will be on hand. And they are certainly a talented bunch. And it seems likely that Michell’s talent will only continue to grow.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

For a Song: Roses and Clover

Animal Liberation Orchestra: Roses and Clover


Jack Johnson gets a lot of criticism for, to put it kindly, being overly mellow. But Johnson is the reason that Animal Liberation Orchestra is on a major label. Johnson signed them to his vanity label, and so their music is reaching the widest possible audience. Roses and Clover is the title track of the first album ALO recorded for the masses, and the song sizzles. The band sets up a simple groove, but they do just enough over the top of it to keep things cooking. Towards the end of the song, that groove threatens to explode, but then it settles back down.

The lyric describes how passion can take over your spirit. It might be a crush, or something more, but it threatens to consume the narrator. I’m sure the band didn’t have this in mind, but the song makes me think of vampires. In many tellings, they exert an influence over those whose blood they drink which feels like intense passion. So this one is seasonal, in a very obscure way. Either way, it’s a great song.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Grace Askew - Until They Lay Me Down to Rest


If you took a pair of dirty shot glasses and made eyeglasses out of them, it would no doubt affect your worldview. On Until They Lay Me Down to Rest, Grace Askew shows what the world might look like in that case. It’s not a pretty sight, but Askew keeps us listening because she cares about the characters she presents. The album does not set out to dazzle the listener with the playing. The musicians provide the perfect support, but it is Grace Askew’s singing and songwriting that must carry the day. They do, beautifully.

I’ve talked before about artists who perform solo, but have fuller arrangements on their albums. Sometimes, I want to strip away all of the production, and just hear the artist. Other times, I marvel at the arrangements, and wonder how the artist could possibly perform without a band. Grace Askew sings, and the album notes call her instrumental contribution “rhythm guitar”. That’s true here in an unusual way: Askew plays in a style so rhythmic that her contribution might as well say “guitar and percussion”. The songs here were recorded in two separate sessions. Four songs were recorded with Richard Ford playing various instruments, but only one per song. Four more songs were recorded with a band consisting of drums, stand-up bass, and electric guitar. That’s eight songs total, and there is a ninth which sounds like it was done in the Ford session, but there are no production credits for that one on the album. So the Ford sessions only add a little color to Askew’s performance, and even the full band sessions have the band playing with a light touch. From all of this, I am sure that Askew could carry the show just fine playing solo, but the additional instrumentation here is done beautifully.

Askew sings in a breathy alto. That way of singing is almost a cliché these days, and it sounds like an affectation for many singers. But Askew is the real deal, and she can make it sound like a bluesy moan or a sexy purr. She knows how to add or subtract air to get just the tone that the song needs. On When I Get Buried, it sounds like a cry for help from the darkness. But on the very next song, This New One, her voice conveys the thrill of a new love. Later, Toasting for Two presents a main character who is struggling to escape codependency, and her voice wavers between despair and hope.

All of these songs are beautifully written. Askew’s motto could be “just enough”. Her words paint pictures of characters who are completely believable, and never overwritten. So far, I’ve mentioned three relationship songs, and there are others here as well. But I was particularly impressed with the songs here that evoke a sense of place. Place, for Askew, is defined by the people you find there. At the Brass Rail is a perfect example of this. Askew sketches in a series of denizens of this motel and bar; she never says anything about what the place looks like, but you can see it in your head by the end of the song. Beautiful Mess describes a bar in the same way, and just as clearly. Tom Waits writes these kinds of songs sometimes, and these two are that good. But Gone presents a series of characters in terms of how they react to the narrator, and she to them, and this works just as well.

So I’ve talked about six of the nine songs here, and I don’t usually do that. But it would be easy to go on. Until They Lay Me Down to Rest is a set of sympathetic arrangements that put the focus on the singing and songwriting of Grace Askew. And that is exactly right. I have a slight preference for the full band arrangements here, but whatever Grace Askew decides to do next will have my interest.

Grace Askew: At the Brass Rail

Grace Askew: But Gone

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Let’s Rock!

I post a lot of songs here that are finely crafted and rich with subtlety and emotional depth. But there are times when I just want something to blast the cobwebs out of my mind and get me moving. For that, there is rock and roll. When I turned 18 in New Jersey, I was legal to drink. I knew many people who celebrated the occasion by achieving advanced inebriation. But, to me, it meant that I could finally go and see a band in a bar. The band of choice was one that was strictly local. They are long gone now, having never even put out a record, but they were great. For the record, they were called Ronnie Orlando and Nightflier. That night defined for me what a bar band, and by extension rock and roll, should be. They were loud and fast, but also tight, and the songs had their own kind of craft. The point of the songs, however, was not to inspire to much thought. It was music to create a mood, and to dance to. It’s tempting to say that they don’t make music like that any more, but luckily, they do. Let’s listen.

The Real Nasty: Jezebelle


As it happens, all of the bands in this post have something in common: not everything they do is pure rock pleasure. The Real Nasty is a three piece band. They rarely bring in any guest musicians, and there are not a lot of overdubs. So the arrangements are simple. But this is a band that doesn’t need a lot of help. They know their way around a rock or country groove. Jezebelle has the sound of a classic my-girl-is doing-me-wrong rocker. The emotions are right there on the table, and the performance is just right.

The Wildes: Slap-Back Mary

[purchase, prices in Australian dollars]

The Wildes are another matter, and so is Slap-Back Mary. This is a four-piece band with guest musicians, and it’s a fuller sound. The country music of Johnny Cash is an obvious influence, and the band also has great pop instincts. Slap-Back Mary is a murder ballad done as a mid-tempo rocker with blistering guitar parts. The song has an archetypal power. Elsewhere, the band turns tender, but this is the one I can most imagine hearing in a bar.

Big Smith: Medical Emergency


Big Smith is a six-piece band. Everybody writes and plays multiple instruments, and almost everybody takes a turn at lead vocals. The resulting album could be a disjointed mess, but it’s not. Instead, it is a smorgasbord of the various music that make up the roots of rock and roll. So some songs have a country or a blues flavor, some shade into bluegrass, there is even the occasional jazzy feel. All of it is performed with gusto. When I got to the point of going to bars to see country bands, Medical Emergency is the kind of song that kept me coming back for more. Rock audiences would never accept this kind of word play, which is a shame. To do this kind of thing well, it must seem natural, like the singer just opened his mouth, and this is what came out. Only later does the listener marvel at what they just heard. And of course, it must resonate emotionally. Medical Emergency passes all of those tests, and it really cooks.

The Johnson Party: Apartment


The personnel listing on this album makes it hard to tell who is in the band and who is a guest. But here is a solid foundation of drums and bass, topped with mostly acoustic instruments. There is acoustic guitar, of course, but also mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. Apartment adds a delicious sax part to the mix. Despite the quieter instrumentation, this is a band that can still rock out when they want to. Apartment is pure pop-rock bliss. There is also a wonderful bonus, however. This is a song about how much the guy loves this girl, and that’s been done a million times. But the lyrics add specific details about her, making her a real person. This song sounds great, but it is also a beautifully realized character sketch. The fine writing carries throughout the album.

The Nadas: Hammer Down


The Nadas have a number of quieter songs, and their lyrics are on the more thoughtful side. But Hammer Down needed to be in this set. Here is a classic rock band line up of drums, bass, organ, and two electric guitars. And here are glorious guitar solos, ripping it up while the crowd dances and cheers. The lead singer’s voice reminds me of Warren Zevon on this one, and that’s not a bad thing either.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

For a Song: Crocodile Man

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer: Crocodile Man


In thinking about this week’s For a Song post, I decided that I was in the mood for a song by Tracy Grammer, with or without Dave Carter. I wanted to avoid duplication, so I needed to see which of their songs I had posted here previously. I was amazed to discover that I had only posted two songs up to now, Carter and Grammer’s I Go Like the Raven and Grammer‘s Mother, I Climbed. I also wanted to see which songs had been posted on Star Maker Machine. There, I defer to my friend Susan, who knows their story well, and always does a great job with their music. Once again, I was in for a surprise. Susan has done 10 posts on Carter and/or Grammer, but neither of us has ever covered the song that introduced me to their work in the first place. So it’s more than time for a post on Crocodile Man.

I live in New Jersey, within broadcast range of WXPN, a public radio station in Philadelphia. In the spring of 2001, they started playing this wonderful song. It had a talking blues feel on the verses, and a sung chorus. The speaker and singer was a young woman who filled this tale of running way to join the circus with first a sense of wonder, and then, as reality hit the narrator, with a sense of the seediness of it. Yet, through it all, that sense of wonder never quite goes away, and the narrator never succumbs to despair. All of this is told over a driving beat and a great hook. In a just world, Crocodile Man would have been a huge hit.

As I heard more of Carter and Grammer’s music, I began to wonder about the dynamics of their partnership, musical and otherwise. Of course, it was none of my business, and I never asked when I had the chance. As 2001 continued, I heard more of their songs on the radio, and I liked everything I heard. I found out that Dave Carter did all of the writing, and sometimes took lead vocals, while Grammer sang lead or backup, and added fills on the fiddle. In the summer of 2001, WXPN held a music festival and had them as performers. Of course, they did Crocodile Man, and the crowd loved it. They also did a song that was so new at the time that they hadn’t named it yet, and the asked for suggestions for a title from the audience. Later, I caught up with them offstage, and struck up a conversation about what to call the song. Dave Carter had something he needed to tend to, and he disappeared into the performers area. But Tracy Grammer stayed with me and continued the conversation, which proceeded to go to some interesting places. (For the record, the song was Mother, I Climbed. My title was Open Your Gate.)

In 2002, while they were on tour, Dave Carter died of a heart attack. Grammer disappeared for a little while, and then reappeared, playing and recording songs that Dave Carter left behind. I had no chance to see Tracy Grammer again until this past summer, at Falcon Ridge. I reminder her of our previous meeting, and she remembered me. That made my day. Also at the festival, Grammer debuted a song that she wrote. It was as good as anything in her catalog, and I hope that this means that she will begin to record her own songs.

Looking back on that conversation in 2001, I think I realize something. During the time that Carter and Grammer were together, he handled all of the writing as I said. But it was Grammer who took the time to speak with me, and the song we were discussing might as well have been her work. And it was. I think that Carter and Grammer’s spirits had become so entwined that it was not necessary for Grammer to do the writng. And I think that Carter’s writing probably shifted as their relationship grew. We live in a cynical age, where this kind of love is dismissed as corny. But this was one time when it really happened. It has taken me all these years to understand that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kim Richey - Wreck Your Wheels


I’m tempted to say that the most notable quality of Kim Richey’s new album Wreck Your Wheels is understatement. But of course, by definition, understatement isn’t notable because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Wreck Your Wheels, then, is an album that deserves and rewards close listening. On its surface, this appears to be an album of grooves rather than songs. Not much seems to happen musically. Richey delivers her vocals without any emotional outbursts, and again, on the surface, the emotions seem subdued. But this album is a work of great subtlety. There is actually quite a bit happening musically, and I’m not sure I’ve even discovered it all yet. Likewise, Richey’s vocals perfectly capture the moments of attempted emotional restraint that are the subjects of many of these songs. And from song to song, there is a wonderful variety of musical textures. But there is also a consistency to the sound of the album overall. And that is all the more remarkable when you consider that, while Kim Richey had a part in writing all of the songs, each is done with a different co-writer, except for one who returns on the album’s last song.

The basic band uses drums, bass, acoustic guitar, and keyboards. Sometimes the bass is electric, sometimes acoustic. Electric guitar is often added. Then, on various songs, you may hear trumpet or flugelhorn, banjo, cello, pedal steel, or even bouzouki on one song. Producer Neilson Hubbard does a great job of getting all of these instruments to blend, to the point that you might miss a trumpet part if you don’t listen carefully.

The songs are about turning points in relationships. The title song opens the album, and here is a woman who has been having trouble committing fully to a relationship. She is just coming to the realization that her lack of commitment is hurting her partner. The situation is not resolved in the song, but it feels like progress is being made. This subject is revisited later, in the song Keys. Taken literally, the song is about losing keys, but of that is a metaphor for a narrator who cannot unlock her heart, and let someone else in. Stated here, it sounds corny, but the song is a beautifully written extended metaphor, and Richey delivers a vocal that really puts it over. Leaving 49 has a fairly happy sound to it; it seems to be about a very temporary separation, as if the narrator is going on a business trip. So for a change, we have the eager anticipation of a reunion. When the Circus Comes to Town appears to be the one song that isn’t about relationships. If I were going to make a new film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes, I would use this song for the opening titles. The arrival of the circus is a cause for eagerness, but also for anxiety. I also want to mention the song Back to You. Coming almost at the end of the album, the song is a hymn, a song of faith in love. It is one of the most powerful moments on the album.

So for me, reviewing Wreck Your Wheels is like starting a new friendship. We are still more strangers than not, but I am eager to get to know this album better.

Kim Richey: Leaving 49

Kim Richey: When the Circus Comes to Town

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Discovered Live

This week on Star Maker Machine, we have been telling stories of our musical discoveries. One of my posts
was about discovering the music of Medium Medium when I got to see them live. That got me thinking about some of the memorable performances that I have seen live. Some were memorable because I discovered an artist who was new to me, while others were just remarkable performances. I don’t have as many of these stories as you might think. I don’t get to shows very often at all any more, and even at my peak, I was not one to go to shows as often as some other people. I did get to see a lot of bar bands in my day, but most of them are long gone. That said, there are still memorable shows that are not in this post. Some I have written about before, while others may turn up in a future post. And here is an amazing fact: as much as I love their music, I never got to see the Grateful Dead live.

The recordings I used in this post are all studio versions. I wish I had good recordings from the shows I attended, but alas…

Los Lobos: Dream in Blue


For many years now, WXPN in Philadelphia has been putting on what they call the All About the Music Festival. It was originally called the Singer-Songwriter Festival, but it outgrew its old name. The last time I was there, Los Lobos closed out the Saturday performances. Did they ever! I knew their music already, and I think I even had an album of theirs, but that did not prepare me for their live performance. They had tremendous energy. A crowd that had been roasting all day on hot asphalt, (the festival has since moved to a more hospitable location), got up and danced unbidden. You couldn’t help it. Los Lobos also stretched and reformed their songs in that performance as few bands do nowadays. Although they are not usually lumped in with the jam bands, Los Lobos certainly was one that day, and in the best sense.

Eliza Carthy: Beautiful Girl


The festival I mentioned above was a good one. Earlier in the day, Eliza Carthy took the stage. I knew her only by reputation at that point. She is the daughter of British folk icons Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, and Eliza began her musical career playing fiddle on traditional songs with Waterson: Carthy, the family band. I had heard that, as a solo artist, Eliza had modernized her sound, so I was ready for something in a Fairport Convention vein, and that would have been fine. But Eliza Carthy took her vast knowledge of traditional music, and brought it into modern pop. She also has a voice that stands on its own; no reference to famous family members is needed, because she is just a great singer. But what struck me most about Eliza Carthy’s performance that day was just how much she was enjoying herself. The first purpose of music is pure pleasure, and Carthy embodied it that day. It’s been a few years, and I hope she still enjoys it that much. I know that I, as a member of the audience, certainly did.

Thompson Twins: Lies


I saw the Thompson Twins years earlier. In fact, it was at the same place that I saw Medium Medium, City Gardens in Trenton NJ. In just a few years, they be having a run of hits with Doctor Doctor and the like, and they would be too big for City Gardens, But I caught them when they were just starting to break in the United States, and before they watered down their sound. It was just three people and a bank of synthesizers, and it could have been robotic and dull, as so much synth-pop was. But the Thompson Twins sprinkled sly musical asides into their songs, and lines disappeared and reappeared. Top all of this off with what had to be the best energy level of any synth-pop band, and you had a great show. For a change, the studio recording gives a decent taste of what it was like.

Norman Blake: Last Train From Poor Valley


I went to see Norman Blake with some trepidation. Why was my oldest brother, who hated folk music, taking me to a folk show? Probably because Blake was a great guitar player. Coming from my brother at that time, that must have meant abstract, time-bending guitar lines, that might be hard to play, but had no emotional resonance for me. The same brother was trying to convince me of the virtues of free jazz at that time.

Of course, if you know Norman Blake’s music, or if you have played the song above, you know I had nothing to worry about. Yes, Blake is a great guitar player, but his greatness is subtle. Musically, his songs sound fairly simple at first; it’s only when you take them apart that you realize how intricate his finger work is. This is even more true on his instrumentals, but I have chosen a song with vocals. That’s because, as much as I enjoy Blake’s playing, what I discovered that night is what a wonderful storyteller he is.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Christine Fellows: The Spinster‘s Almamnac


There are many reasons why music lovers here in the United States should pay more attention to music from Canada. Judging by the CDs that I receive, the Canadian government not only provides generous support to the artists, but also encourages cross-pollination between different artistic disciplines. The music itself can combine elements of cabaret, folk, classical, jazz, avant-garde, and pop. And often, there is a visual component as well. This could involve projections on a screen during a performance, but it could also produce music that is intended to go with a dance performance. Much of this applies to the music of Christine Fellows. Indeed, The Spinster’s Almanac is one of several songs on this album that were commissioned for a dance work of the same name by Susan Burpee. And I can hear the folk, cabaret, and pop elements in this set of songs. This could be considered an album of modern day art songs, a classical concept. The other important element here is literary. Fellows is inspired particularly by the writings of Marianne Moore on the album, although this song in particular contains a reference to William Butler Yeats. Having said all of that, The Spinster’s Almanac may sound fairly straightforward, but listen closely. Yes, the song maintains a consistent groove throughout, but, by the end of the song, that groove is being carried by different instruments than the ones that started it. Some of the musical surprises on this album are more startling, but the all have a certain logic. The lyrics are moving but mysterious; they certainly make an impression, but I suspect that those impressions will change over time. Both musically and lyrically, this is an album that reveals itself slowly, and will reward repeated listening generously.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

For a Song: Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?

Natalie Cole: Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?


I love baseball, so I wanted to offer a song in honor of the beginning of the playoffs. My Mets are watching at home once again this year, and I have to put up with both the Yankees and the Phillies once again. But I still love the game, and the playoffs show it off at its best. (For the record, I’d like to see the Rays and the Reds in the World Series, and it has nothing to do with the letter r.) So I needed the right song. I once posted Steve Goodman’s Dying Cub Fan on Star Maker Machine, and I don’t like to repeat myself. Centerfield and Talkin’ Baseball have been done to death. But I found this, and it’s a good one.

Jackie Robinson is a hero of mine. His great play forced open the barriers to blacks in baseball, but by all accounts, Robinson never let that go to his head. He knew he had done something important, but he always carried himself with grace. It only stands to reason that someone would write a song about it, and by 1949, Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball? was a hit for Count Basie. Natalie Cole recorded her version for Ken Burns’ Baseball, and the Basie version was clearly the model. But Cole channels her inner Betty Boop here, and it really adds something. I haven’t really liked anything I have heard by Natalie Cole before, but this one hit’s the spot. Safe!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ellis - Right on Time


Sometimes I get an album to review, and I know I like it and want to review it, but I have to adjust my thinking to do so. I favor a lot of songwriters who are artful and use misdirection and other poetic devices to make their points. I will get back to that, but Ellis isn’t like that. Ellis is an open heart. She expresses herself directly in terms that are simple and universal. As I started listening, I began to dismiss her songs as cliché-ridden, but that’s not right. What she does instead is so rare that I almost missed it. Ellis’ feelings are sincere and unencumbered, and they are expressed that way. In a complicated world, she keeps it simple. More power to her. Once I realized what was going on here, I found it very refreshing.

Right on Time begins with the title track. Here, Ellis sings in a clear alto, and accompanies herself on acoustic guitar. And that’s it. She fingerpicks the guitar part, and plays it beautifully, and the song does not need anything else. Starting with the second song, she is joined by a crack band, with Tony Levin, Ben Wisch, Larry Campbell, and Duke Levine. Liner note freaks like myself will know all of these names, and be properly awed. But their job is to thicken the songs and add texture. There is no flashy playing here. It’s all about supporting Ellis and her songs. And her acoustic guitar is always front and center in the mix. The last song on the album was a late addition, with a different band whose names were unfamiliar to me. But again, their job is to provide support, and they do it well. Throughout, there are no drums; that would undermine the delicacy of these songs.

Right on Time is a collection of love songs, but not all are addressed to a lover. Again, I had to adjust my thinking. The closer, You Are Royalty to Me, was written for Ellis’ grandmother, and the song thanks her for the love she showed Ellis as a child. Right on Time strikes me as being addressed to someone the singer met, who elicited her sympathy, and whom she wanted to encourage. And Coffee Song is a love song to, well, coffee. Ellis’ shows a wonderful sense of humor here, and the song put a big grin on my face. When the songs are addressed to a lover, the results are beautiful. Coming Home to You expresses the yearning of a lover who has to travel, and can’t wait to get home. The singer has complete faith that her lover will always be there when she comes off the road, but she does not forget to be grateful for that. Without a Compass perfectly captures that period in a relationship where there are no rules yet; you have to try things and see what works. This song also features some wonderful imagery. Ellis’ singing is not fancy either, but she puts the emotions of her songs across perfectly.

There, is, in fact, artistry here. It is subtle. Ellis can add air to her voice for effect, and she sometimes uses the bottom of her vocal range to good effect as well. Likewise, the songwriting does use metaphors in places, but the overall effect is on of directness and honesty. I often find myself wanting to hear more music from the artists I review. And I will be happy to hear more from Ellis as well. But this is one of those rare times when an album makes me want to spend more time with the artist. I met Ellis briefly at Falcon Ridge, and she seemed very nice. For me, this album confirms it.

Ellis: Coming Home to You

Ellis: Without a Compass

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Where the Night Takes You

The basic idea for this post was simple enough. Take a bunch of songs with the word night in the title and put them together. There are plenty to choose from, so this also gave me a chance to feature some albums that I have been meaning to get to. But, it’s never so simple. I found myself thinking about night time and what it brings out in people. Night means darkness, means hidden qualities, and it makes it easier to let go. Let’s bring a flashlight, and have a look.

The Waifs: Up All Night


Darkness can make loneliness worse. There could be others around, but they become hard to see. Up All Night is a slow bluesy shuffle, and a cry in the dark.

Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis: Night Life


Many musicians and their audiences have to do something else all day. But then darkness falls, and it’s time to make music. Some critics have said that Willie Nelson’s laid back musical style meshed with Wynton Marsalis’ hot New Orleans jazz on the album Two Men With the Blues like oil meshes with water. But when I listen, I hear classic songs performed by two men who have become friends, and are having a blast.

Candye Kane: (Hey Mister) She Was My Baby Last Night


As long as I was looking at jazz and blues, I thought I’d throw this in. Hey Mister is a wonderful piece of jump blues. The full title says what you think it says. Candye Kane breaks a taboo here, under cover of darkness. But the song is not about sneaking around in the dark. Kane not only has no regrets, she may even be proud of herself. In any case, the song is a blast.

Gov’t Mule: Raven Black Night


This song is here simply because it is an amazing piece of music. The song has a Middle Eastern feel to it, and a great rhythmic intensity. This is a studio recording, but it’s not hard to imagine the band jamming on it live.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

This Spotlight may look familiar. I had attached it to a post a few weeks ago that became a takedown. However, I have Elaine Romanelli’s permission to post this song, and she deserves another shot.

Elaine Romanelli: Naughty Lola


I would like the friends I made at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival to know that, if I didn’t get to your album yet, I’m not done. Elaine Romanelli is one of those. Many of her songs on this album veer towards what might be called folk-pop. This is a good choice for her high sweet voice. There are times though when she shows a bit more sass, and I find those particularly enjoyable. The jazzy feel of Naughty Lola is a fine example. The album Real Deal also has some very moving ballads. Romanelli hasn’t been doing this for as long as some, and I can’t wait to hear how she puts all this together as she goes on.